Dave Gahan: In Full Work Mode
By Richard Harrington
Friday, December 9, 2005; Page WE05
On this very morning a week ago, Dave
Gahan slept in.
"Which is unusual for me," the Brit-born, now New York-based singer for Depeche
Mode reported from Toronto.
"But we just did three shows running consecutively -- Chicago, Detroit and, last
night, Toronto -- and I certainly feel that nowadays!"
Gahan's not complaining, mind you. At 43, he is simply no longer living up to stereotypes
about how rock musicians should act on the road. Of course, how Depeche Mode, and Gahan in
particular, used to act on the road is the stuff of legend. A couple of years ago,
Britain's Q Magazine named the band's 1993 Devotional tour "The Most Debauched Rock
and Roll Tour Ever."
That was the same year the heroin-addicted Gahan suffered a heart attack onstage in New
Orleans. Two years later, he survived a suicide attempt (he slashed his wrists while
talking to his mother on the phone from Los Angeles). In 1996, Gahan's heart stopped
beating after a heroin and cocaine binge at Hollywood's Sunset Marquis: It was several
minutes before he was revived by paramedics. That's when Gahan pursued rehab and therapy.
Then, two years ago, Gahan found a voice. True, he had been Depeche Mode's singer and
frontman for 25 years, but the words tumbling out of his mouth were written by Martin
Gore, who took over sole songwriting duties in 1981 when co-founder Vince Clarke left to
form Yazoo and, later, Erasure. Gore and Clarke had co-written the group's bubbly first
hit, "Just Can't Get Enough," but alone, Gore's vision was decidedly darker,
tapping into the existential ache of youth.
As Depeche Mode became the sultans of synth-pop, Gahan grew increasingly frustrated over
his limited role. In fact, he almost quit 2001's "Exciter" album. What saved
him, and likely Depeche Mode, was "Paper Monsters," the singer's 2003 solo
album, the first featuring songs he had written reflecting his experiences and feelings,
including "Dirty Sticky Floors," a rough-edged meditation on the push and pull
of drug addiction.
"Sometimes just taking that action is all that's needed," Gahan says of his
late-blooming creative partnership with Knox Chandler, who played with the Psychedelic
Furs. "I was just excited to have found somebody that I was compatible with, not that
I had been really searching for that before."
Gahan does note that for years he has been "fortunate enough to be singing wonderful
songs that Martin had written, and a lot of those songs had struck something inside
"I've always said, and I've always felt, that there's a connection between Martin and
I that's beyond anything that we think about ourselves individually. There's something
that he does that I'm connected to, and there's something that I do that he needs me to do
to make his ideas work. I don't know what that is, but we have something together. But I
guess that wasn't working for me so much anymore."
That "Paper Monsters" was well received critically and commercially gave Gahan
some courage, and bargaining power, when he met with Gore and keyboardist Andy Fletcher to
start work on the next Depeche Mode album, "Playing the Angel." Working
together, Gahan says with a slight chuckle, meant "Martin embracing the idea of me
submitting some songs, though maybe less than I wanted." What he wanted was to write
half the album; he ended up contributing three tracks out of 12.
Even that, Gahan concedes, allowed for a sense of liberation.
"That's kind of how it feels to me," he says. "Somebody said to me the
other day, 'I notice you don't come hang out afterwards and go to the after-show parties.'
The other guys still like to do that; it just doesn't work for me. It's really become
about the work. I know that sounds weird after all these years, and on some level, of
course, it's always been about the work, but I'm really in touch with that being the more
important part of it now.
"And I really am enjoying the performance, in fact we all are as a band. We talk
about it every night after the show. And it probably began with me making my own record
and putting myself in that position of exposing myself, coming out from behind the curtain
a little bit more instead of hiding behind the facade that Martin's created and written
about and being quite comfortable with that. "
This latest Gahan is much improved even over the Gahan who in the mid-'90s overcame
addiction so out of control he was dubbed "The Cat," with friends and foes alike
counting off his proverbial nine lives after each close call. The results: "Playing
the Angel" is the best Depeche Mode album since 1993's "Songs of Faith and
Devotion," testament to a band once again working on all cylinders and with a common
purpose. Their tour, whose first leg ends with a show Friday at George Mason University's
Patriot Center, has just been extended to include Mexico, Europe and a second stateside
swing in the spring, with a headlining slot at California's massive Coachella festival.
"Right now on stage it really feels like we're celebrating together and -- I know it
sounds weird -- like we're sharing the same space for the first time and really enjoying
that and embracing the idea rather than it being this almost competitive game, which I
really wasn't that much aware of until now," Gahan says.
"It's weird how that kind of stuff works, but [change] does happen in the time it's
supposed to," he adds. "I certainly would not have been ready [until now]. A lot
of that is the fact that I had a wake-up call 10 years ago, and it's enabled me to not be
afraid of growing. Facing up to real responsibilities in my life -- and I'm not talking
about the band, I'm talking about my life, my family, my beautiful wife, my children, my
family of origin as well -- showing up and not being that strange outsider kid that I
"It was one of those things that I carried through my teens -- being the odd kid, the
kid who didn't fit in anywhere. Along the way I've met a lot more of those odd kids, so I
don't feel so alone with that anymore. I actually feel very comfortable in my own skin,
though it's taken me 40-something odd years."
Taking their band's name from a French fashion magazine, Gahan, Gore, Fletcher and Clarke
started out as punk-loving schoolmates in Basildon, Essex, before helping fuel the post
new-wave synthesizer revolution of England's New Romantic movement, albeit playing in the
darker division. They broke wide in 1984 with their "Some Great Reward" album
and hit singles "People Are People" and "Master and Servant," got
large with 1987's "Music for the Masses" ("Never Let Me Down Again,"
"Strangelove") and went worldwide massive with 1990's "Violator"
("Personal Jesus," "Enjoy the Silence") and 1993's "Songs of
Faith and Devotion." Adding more guitar and a brooding, harder-edge sound, Depeche
Mode managed to appeal to dance, pop and rock fans alike, enough to fill stadiums.
But the bigger the band became, the darker things were for Gahan, who says he found
himself "hiding behind this sort of facade and being comfortable there, then having
to find something else to hide behind, and gradually those things not working anymore, and
at the end of the day being left with yourself and there you are, looking in the mirror
saying, 'Who am I, and what is it I really want?' "
"The struggle for me was really not knowing what that was. As always, it's the simple
things that somehow become more important in life as you get a little bit older. I know it
sounds hokey, but hearing my mother say those things and hearing her voice go in my head,
'You'll find out when you get older' makes a lot more sense today than it did when I was
25 years old. It's always mother, isn't it?"
Gahan also credits a strong marriage to wife Jennifer, who knows the problems of a
recovering addict from being one herself, his 6-year-old daughter and his two teenage sons
from a previous marriage. According to Gahan, "The 18-year-old is in London studying
guitar and wanting to be a rock star, God forbid, and my 13-year-old is going through the
usual 13-year-old struggles."
Somehow, that's reassuring.
As for "Playing the Angel," it's not just rapprochement between Gahan and Gore
that has made the new album a success. Gahan credits producer Ben Hillier (Blur, Doves)
with melding two dramatically different sounds: the '80s "electronic" Depeche
Mode and its "rocky electronic" counterpart from the '90s.
"It's very difficult to sort of take the darkness out of Depeche Mode, but it's
really nice when somebody brings some light in there so we can see a little," Gahan
"Ben definitely did that, and I would say this is the most fun record that we've ever
made since 'Violator.' It felt like we were doing something that was pushing the
boundaries of Depeche Mode, that once again we were actually challenging ourselves and
rising to the occasion and most importantly, listening to somebody that we
Better yet, Gahan adds, "today I feel the most content I've ever felt. I go on stage,
I perform and I really, really enjoy that -- it's where I give it my all. And then I come
offstage and I just want to sit in front of the TV and watch 'The Simpsons' and eat a
pizza, and I'm very happy to do that. I get online, stick my eye-cam on the computer and
talk to my kids. I'm very content in that way, but I'm also really, really enjoying the
work. That's what's very different from now and what it was like then. Then it was 100
percent always about the band. Anything that got in the way of that it was just eased out
-- friends, family, wives, whatever -- relationships were all eased out the way, they
could never compete.
"It's an insane way to live."
Depeche Mode Friday at the Patriot Center with the Bravery Sound: Rock-tinged electro pop
New recording: "Playing the Angel" Background: Darker side of England's
synth-pop New Romantic movement Influenced: Techno, industrial rock, acid house